Top 12 Sustainable Home Improvements

Whether you want to save money or the planet, these sustainable home improvements will help. Adding insulation, air-sealing, and new windows will also make your home more comfortable.

Here is a list of the top twelve home improvements to make your home more sustainable:

1.) Schedule HVAC System Maintenance

Homeowners often do not keep up on HVAC maintenance. This included changing the air filter twice a year. It will cause the fan to overwork and possibly burn out if not done. On top of that, the filter is no longer working correctly, which lowers indoor air quality.

Keep up with air filter changes (consider upgrading to a higher MERV rating for better filtering), and schedule yearly maintenance.

2.) Install a Smart or Programmable Thermostat

Smart thermostats are excellent. They are usually easier to use than programmable thermostats.

There is also the benefit of keeping an eye on temperature and humidity in the home while you are away.

You can also keep track of heating or cooling system usage. The system will tell you if a high number of usage hours was because of your settings or outdoor temperatures.

3.) Upgrade to Double-Glazed Windows

If you have single-pane windows, you should consider upgrading to a quality double-pane window. Single-pane windows lose too much energy and allow air and sound to pass easily.

If your budget allows purchasing a double-glazed casement style window they will offer the best performance. Double-hung windows are often cheaper but do not seal as well.

Casement windows also offer a larger viewing area. So, you get better performance and looks.

4.) Install Low-Flow Water Fixtures

This is especially important for hot water. If you have high-flow water fixtures and use hot water, then the water heater has to heat a lot more. If you have well-water, the well-pump will also run more, even with cold water. Plus, with well-water, most areas require a water softener. So the more water you use, the more you need to soften, heat, and pump.

Water shortages will become a significant concern in the coming future, so why not install some low-flow water fixtures and save money and a natural resource.

5.) Seal Air Leaks

Air leakage is one of the most significant drivers of energy loss. As you heat or cool the air, it quickly escapes to the outdoors, or the outside air enters the building.

This is also the most bang-for-your-buck project you can do. Air-sealing can often be a DIY project, but be aware that sometimes in an existing home, there is only so much that can be done.

The worst offenders are often can-lighting. Older models did not seal the ceiling tightly and created massive air leakage. If you have these in your home, start there. Attic hatches are also poorly sealed.

6.) Add Insulation

Once all the air-sealing is completed, the next thing to do is think about adding insulation. In some areas like unconditioned attics, you can easily blow in large amounts of cellulose insulation.

In most areas in the United States, you will want to aim for an R-value of R-60. This, along with air-sealing, will significantly improve energy loss.

When the siding is replaced, external wall insulation is often the cheapest and easiest time to do it. Adding interior insulation can be done, but it is often challenging (if not impossible) to do correctly. Unless the home is gutted and the drywall will be removed.

7.) Install Renewable Energy Systems

Once you complete the above items, you may want to add renewable energy. The most popular and cost-effective currently is solar power.

Although, this largely depends on if your home has the proper roof that faces south. Trees can also be a problem with solar. If interested, have a solar energy company visit your home and do a solar audit.

8.) Seal Ductwork or Move

First, if you have ductwork in your unconditioned attic, you should think about moving it inside the building envelope. There are solutions like the SuperAttic system if you prefer to leave the ductwork in the attic.

If this is out of your budget, at least seal the ductwork so that it is not leaking into the attic and wasting energy.

9.) Plant Trees or Bushes

Trees can be planted to improve home energy efficiency. This makes the most sense on the home’s east, west, or south-facing side with deciduous trees. During the summer months, the tree/s will provide shade, and in the winter the leaves will fall and let the sun warm the home.

NOTE: The trees may interfere if you plan on using solar energy or currently have a solar system. In this case, you’re better off using adequately sized roof overhangs to save energy and not block the solar panels.

10.) Switch to Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs

Most homeowners realize that older incandescent light bulbs are energy hogs. There are two approaches to changing them. You can do it all at once, even though the old bulbs are still good, or swap them out over time as the old bulbs burn out.

The problem with swapping them out over time is that you may not get the same bulb in the future. And the looks, color, and brightness may be slightly off. As lighting manufacturers often change product lines. Plus the money you save by waiting could be more than what you would gain by making the switch to an LED light bulb right away.

Bottom line, it makes sense to change the lighting to LED as soon as possible.

11.) Choose Energy-Star Rated Appliances

Appliances can eat up a large amount of energy. After HVAC systems, appliances are often the second item to use the most power. Refrigerators are often the worst.

When replacing an appliance, make sure you purchase the correct size (as a larger unit will use excess energy you don’t need) and look for an Energy-Star rating. This is a simple way to ensure the item uses the least energy possible—no need to do extensive amounts of math to compare different models.

12.) Upgrade Heating and Cooling Systems

After air-sealing, adding insulation, and new windows, you might be surprised to learn that your HVAV system is now oversized. This often leads to using more energy than required and causing “short-cycling,” essentially just the unit turning on and off too many times. This leads to earlier equipment failure and comfort issues.

Think of your home HVAC system like a car. In your vehicle, if you turn on the heat on a cold day and blast it full speed, you get hot and shut it off. You then get out as the temperature drops, and the cycle continues.

Ideally, you want an HVAC system continuously running at a low speed. This keeps air moving and at a consistent temperature.

Final Thoughts

When you look at all the above twelve sustainable home improvements, it can be overwhelming. Take the improvements one small step at a time with your budget and time. Start with low-flow water fixtures and LED light bulbs. Then, work your way through the list depending on your home’s issues and what makes the most sense to fix.

If you are unsure about this, energy auditors can come to your home. They will look at everything and let you know what work needs to be completed. Search out someone who is certified by a reputable organization like BPI.

Ultimately, your home will look better, be more comfortable, have healthier indoor air, and use less natural resources. What’s not to like about that?

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.